Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The New(ish) Review: Fright Night

Good grief that’s a terrible poster. I don’t know whether it’s because the titles appear to have been crammed into a dark void beneath Anton Yelchin's feet, or because Colin Farrell is turning into a cloud, but I don’t like it.  You may not think it looks too bad right now, so how about we compare it with the original?

See what I mean? There’s no questionable Photoshop work in sight. It’s a genuine work of art, and more than worthy of being framed on your wall(s). Too bad most film posters are so uninspired nowadays...  

Anyway, Fright Night’s poster kinda sucks. It’s a good thing, then, and a genuine surprise that the actual film itself far exceeded my expectations. I say surprise not just because of the poster, but due to the current climate of the horror genre. It seems like a new remake is announced every week; and each time there’s grumblings over how Hollywood is, quote unquote, raping the classics. An extreme viewpoint, I agree, but some of us remain optimistic – hoping they’ll at least live up to their predecessors. If we’re lucky, they just about succeed (Friday the 13th). But more often than not, they simply either fall flat (The Omen), or even miss the point entirely (Halloween).   

But this new Fright Night, directed by Craig Gillespie, does a pleasingly enthusiastic job of staying true to the 1985 original, while also updating it for a modern generation. The basic story remains the same - life is good for teenager Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) until Jerry the hunky vampire (Colin Farrell) moves in next door, putting himself, his mother (Toni Collette) and his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) in danger; and Charlie’s only hope may be in horror icon Peter Vincent (David Tennant). But this is far from a common retread.

Yes, certain classic scenes (like the nightclub encounter) and memorable dialogue (‘Welcome to Fright Night...’) are given another opportunity to shine. But almost everywhere you look, something new has been added to keep the remake feeling fresh. This goes beyond the basic contemporary changes, like transforming Peter Vincent from the host of a late night horror movie show to a Las Vegas stage magician with a fascination in the occult, and gives us Fright Night that is at once familiar and new.

Take Farrell’s interpretation of Jerry (now sans the Dandridge surname), which is very different to the Chris Sarandon vampire. While the first Jerry was a suave womaniser accompanied by awesome Brad Fiedel synth music, Jerry ’11 is more of a rugged bad boy. That air of a sexual predator remains, of course, just now with an animalistic streak. He’s described in-film as the ‘shark from Jaws’, which is pretty accurate when you consider how Farrell dominates his scenes through sheer physical menace. I may prefer Sarandon’s more charmingly evil “80s Dracula” undead lover, but Farrell delivers an effective performance for a suitably updated Jerry. He still does love those apples, mind you.   

Then there’s the relationship between Brewster and fan-favourite character “Evil” Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), which is given an interesting new spin for the remake. At first, Charlie doesn’t seem to have changed too much since 1985. He’s still a likeably normal kind of guy (and Yelchin does shout less than William Ragsdale), but we discover the main change when Ed is brought in. Originally, Ed wasn’t much more than a giggling sidekick, but here he represents the last remnant of a geeky past that we learn Charlie is desperately trying to get away from. This adds a little extra welcome complexity to Brewster, and leads to a great deal of hilariously written awkwardness in their scenes together... all two or three of them. “Evil” is sadly underused here, and he doesn’t get enough development time, lessening the impact of his fate. Thankfully, Mintz-Plasse is as much good value as ever, and he fully embraces the character’s goofy nature. There’s a solid chance his role will be the one you remember the most.    

As for Peter Vincent, well, it’s a night and day kind of difference. Gone is Roddy McDowell’s lovable old has-been, and in his place is Tennant’s foul mouthed and obnoxious stage performer with a penchant for very tight leather pants. Don’t worry too much if this sounds like a character you think you’ll hate, though, as Tennant makes it work. The character arc remains similar, only this time he’s making the journey from complete arse-hat to hero instead of coward to hero; and you’ll get a thrill out of seeing him tooled up like a botch job Van Helsing in time for the climax.      

For me, I don’t think every change works out. The new Vegas setting, for instance, although providing a convenient link to Vincent, doesn’t have the ambiguity of the original film’s suburban neighbourhood, and so robs this remake of that even YOUR neighbour could be a vampire vibe. Jerry is far less subtle this time, too, and some of his noisier actions would surely draw more attention than he would have liked. Also, a late revelation involving Vincent’s past is perhaps a little contrived, while an instance of deus ex machina during the last act was jarring enough to make my friend loudly whisper ‘CONVENIENT’.

Yes, I’m nitpicking.

But oh no! It’s in 3D! Given the choice I’d happily pick the 2D option, but Fright Night was only being shown in blurrovision, and that’s how I ended up seeing it. It’s not too bad, I guess, but this was a film that used the extra dimension primarily as a gimmick, rather than an attempt at furthering your sense of immersion. There is one sequence set in a car, shot in one take, and utilising a slowly rotating camera which does benefit from the added depth, but that’s about it. Otherwise, a lot of crap shoots in your general direction, such as arrows or spurts of arterial blood, but there’s nothing special standing out that you’ll likely remember later. No doubt, when watched in 2D, those effects will come off as a tad pointless.

Speaking of special effects, I was once again surprised. With the exception of an unconvincing CGI blood splatter here and there (it just doesn’t work, Hollywood!), Fright Night benefits a great deal from the various technological upgrades. I should note how this film is grounded in more of a reality compared to the original, so you sadly won’t see anyone turning into a large rubber bat. But those gruesome facial transformations make a return and receive a great update (check out the rows of realigning teeth in Farrell’s mouth). I suppose it helps that the film looks very dark and murky for the most part (in direct contrast with the colourful original), with many of the more outlandish effects bathed in shadows. But it works, and that’s what’s important... though I do blame the overriding darkness for why an important cameo appearance flew right over my head!

With a film such as this, you may be wondering about the fear factor. Is it scary? I don’t think there’s anything here to keep you up at night (except for that annoying guy from Scrubs), but Fright Night was and still is a horredy through and through. Yes, people are getting their throats chewed out, but just like with the original, there’s a playful tone to the film thanks to a sharp script which delivers a fast paced affair with plenty of action and comedy while never forgetting to focus on its larger-than-life characters. But that doesn’t mean it’s not afraid to dial up the suspense for several key parts (such as Charlie’s first white-knuckle venture into Jerry’s house); and those moments are hairy to say the least.

A big question has been looming over this review... which is the best Fright Night? Honestly, and while I’ve given it much thought, I couldn’t tell you. Excluding that awful poster, they’re both about as good as each other. When compared directly, there are things I prefer less and more about the two versions, but I enjoy the original for its successful modernisation (at the time) of the vampire legend, and I enjoy this remake for doing the same thing while throwing in a bunch of new surprises. I might have a slight preference for the first film, but there’s little wrong with Gillespie’s remake. You're in for a good time, regardless.

Now if only some studio could just take the time to put together a decent release of the sadly neglected Fright Night Part II...

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Blu-ray Review: Demolition Man

The unmistakably 90s action/sci-fi cult classic arrives on Blu-ray to inspire us all with joy joy feelings!

The Film

In the horrific, nightmarish near-future of... 1996... Sergeant John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) faces off with psychotic crime lord Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) in a final explosive confrontation that seemingly results in the deaths of innocent hostages. As punishment, Spartan is sent to a newly introduced CryoPrison and placed in cryogenic storage alongside his nemesis.

Almost forty years later, Phoenix is thawed out for a parole hearing, during which he escapes into the futuristic “paradise” of San Angeles, where crime has become virtually non-existent, seashells have replaced toilet paper and Taco Bell is the only restaurant to survive the “franchise wars”. With his lethal nature proving too much of a challenge for the gentle police force of the time, plucky young Lieutenant Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), who takes a great deal of interest in the late 20th century, suggests that they awaken John Spartan – The Demolition Man – for a chance at redemption.

What follows is a deftly handled mix of action, sci-fi and comedy. Those first two elements complement each other the most effectively, with the futuristic setting presenting a number of creative opportunities for the various action set pieces. And there is a lot of action – Spartan and Phoenix encounter each other several times and the result tends to be chaotic. The best gags come from watching Spartan getting to grips with all the annoying surprises the future holds (such as the machines that charge you for swearing in public), as well as Huxley’s hilariously broken attempts at replicating the vulgar language of yesteryear (which I don’t dare spoil here).   

Perhaps the biggest attraction here is getting to see Stallone and Snipes heading the cast in opposing roles. After watching him play dark, brooding heroes like John Rambo and Marion Cobretti, it’s great to see Sly as a much lighter protagonist. John Spartan certainly doesn’t shy away from delivering tough justice, but it’s nice to see him do it with a smile and a one liner in tow. Meanwhile, Snipes is a real treat. Pumped full of manic energy, he clearly enjoys playing a complete lunatic such as Phoenix, and is effortlessly able to switch from being hysterically over the top to downright menacing should the occasion call for it. Both characters could have easily been ripped from the pages of a comic book.

It’s all very silly, but with a clearly ironic approach to the daft proceedings, not to mention a degree of genuine originality, I’d say Demolition Man is one of the more inspired films to be produced by action cinema, and a definite highlight in the careers of its two stars.          

The Disc

I last saw Demolition Man on a VHS recorded off TV. So to say I was impressed by the Blu-ray would be an understatement. Warner Bros have clearly put some effort into this transfer, as it’s one of the best catalogue releases I’ve seen.

Firstly, I did not pick up on any digital noise reduction. There’s a very fine layer of grain covering the image throughout, lending a nice and filmic quality to the picture. Close-ups display an excellent amount of facial detail, especially on Stallone and Snipes, but even on the smooth-faced citizens of San Angeles (a futuristic makeup choice, or so I am led to believe). While there are more than a few soft shots here and there, the overall level of quality is pin-sharp. You might just be able to make out the small print on that Lethal Weapon 3 poster in Huxley’s office.

I also did not detect any edge enhancement; and even if there is some then it must be barely noticeable. Black levels also appear well resolved, with plenty of clear shadow detail.

My only real boggle with the picture quality would be its skin tones. For most of the film, everyone appears overly tanned (orange, even). But I’m not sure if this is more to do with the source material than it is a fault with the Blu-ray transfer, so I may be fretting over nothing. Otherwise, colours are strong throughout.

Demolition Man’s DTS-HD 5.1 audio track doesn’t disappoint either. Elliot Goldenthal’s score benefits appropriately, while the various sonic qualities appear to be correctly balanced. Gunshots and explosions pack an audible punch, hand-to-hand combat sequences are satisfyingly meaty and dialogue is perfectly clear (or, in the case of Stallone, as clear as it can be). Nothing is lost in the overall mix.

As for extras, Warner Bros weren’t quite as generous in this department. All that’s included is the original theatrical trailer and a director/producer commentary ported over from the DVD which is sadly lacking the presence of the movie’s stars. I’d love it if Stallone and Snipes got together to record a commentary one day, but I won’t get my hopes too high.


The film is nothing short of entertaining, and the high definition transfer is exceptionally strong for a release of this calibre. If you’re an action fan, and unless extra features are a deal breaker for you, then I highly recommend this Blu-ray.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The New(ish) Review: Cowboys & Aliens

I’m not so sure what mindset I needed to be in for this. On the one hand, you’ve got the combined talents of Iron Man director Jon Favreau and actors Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford bolstered by a good supporting cast. But on the other hand, well... it’s called Cowboys & Aliens.

Jake Lonergan (Craig) bolts upright in the middle of the desert with no memory of how he got there, and no knowledge of the strange metal device stuck on his arm. After eventually making his way to a nearby town, he almost immediately runs afoul of not only the law, but also powerful local cattle rancher, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford). Right when it seems we’re in for a by-the-numbers Western story, aliens arrive (wait, what?!) and abduct numerous town folk before flying off into the distance. Putting their differences aside, Jake and Dolarhyde assemble a motley crew and set out to get their people back, while learning the truth behind the invaders along the way.       

On paper, it sounds great! But considering the potential pitfalls of a genre mash-up such as this, am I meant to expect a staggeringly original masterpiece or an unmitigated disaster? As it turns out, I thought the end result wound up somewhere in the middle. Not a complete train wreck, but also far from great. Because there are problems.

The first one you’re likely notice is the terrifying number of clichéd characters. Daniel Craig’s ‘man with no name for the first twenty minutes’ is the same kind of strong, silent don’t-take-no-crap-from-anyone type we’ve seen a hundred and one times before. Same goes for Harrison Ford’s gruff Dolarhyde, who begins the film as a total bastard but gradually softens as time goes by. The secondary characters don’t help matters much. There’s a cowardly saloon owner (Sam Rockwell) with an all-too obvious character arc; the wizened preacher (Clancy Brown) who nurses our hero back to health; and the mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) who hides a secret agenda of her own.

On top of that, there are some questionable casting choices. Sam Rockwell is usually the kind of guy who gets to play eccentric or highly emotional roles, but here his abilities appear lost in such a bland character. He gets to fret over his missing wife a bit, but that’s your lot. Also, and maybe it’s just because I’ve seen Highlander one too many times, but I don’t really buy Clancy Brown in the kindly priest role which in no way, shape or form reminds me of old Ben Kenobi. I’m not saying either of them do a bad job in their roles – each in fact gives it their best – it’s merely that they’re not playing to their strengths; and so they end up being wasted.

After all, wouldn’t you want to see Brown playing an alien leader? I know I would... so long as he doesn’t come from anywhere called Zeist.
 Another time, Lonergan!!!

Cowboys & Aliens also has a slight obsession with the art of set-up and pay-off. For instance, there’s absolutely no way that initially awkward relationship between Dolarhyde and his kidnapped son’s best friend who happens to be of native descent will ever develop into something more meaningful. Or I’m sure that one knife Dolarhyde (again) keeps harping on about to that one kid won’t end up being later used in a life or death situation (really though, you will be waiting almost the entire film for that thing to live up to its seemingly enormous potential). It’s not Tron Legacy levels of predictability, but it’s knocking on the door.

Then there’s the pacing. Or lack of. The film doesn’t so much grind to a halt as it does simply break down on a number of occasions.  A chief example being when an ENTIRE TRIBE of Native Americans (am I allowed to type ‘Injuns’?) appears right out of nowhere after one major action scene. I know a lot of people say the Ewoks slowed Return of the Jedi right down, but they should check this out before knocking Endor’s finest.

Their late and very convenient arrival into the plot is simply a means of getting to that all-important exposition scene. In it, and thanks to the application of some herbal tea, we learn more or less everything about anything... and none of it satisfies. Previous murky flashbacks told us almost all we needed to know about what happened to Jake, so the official explanation holds few surprises; and upon learning why the aliens came here in the first place, Harrison Ford accurately mimics the audience at that point by baulking “Well, that’s just ridiculous!” It’s a reveal which doesn’t do much good for the aliens’ image. Finally, the secret behind Wilde’s character comes far too out of left field (even for a film like this) to be convincing; and is never properly built upon either.

By now, you may have noticed how I’ve only had bad things to note about Cowboys & Aliens. But the funny thing is... I actually really quite liked it. It’s got flaws up the wazoo, there’s no denying it, but they didn’t do much to damage my overall enjoyment of the film.

Because how could I not, at least on some primordial level, enjoy a movie about cowboys taking on otherworldly villains? Simply being able to watch something that combines two of my favourite genres is more than enough to put a smile on my face. It’s a B-Movie, pure and simple; and something tells me the filmmakers were well aware of this.

I know I went on about all the clichéd characters, but even that’s not such a big deal thanks to the efforts of the two main leads. It would have been far too easy for Craig and Ford to phone in their performances, but they really do sell their characters through a combination of earnest acting and keeping their tongues firmly within cheek. Same goes for the rest of the cast, with the only real weak link being Wilde (but only because she has next to nothing to do). Favreau’s direction is as reliable as ever, too; and is what ultimately keeps the film from falling apart.

Special mention has to go to Industrial Light and Magic, who once again deliver outstanding special effects. Here, they’ve brought to life one of the most convincing alien species I’ve seen in a while. While quite basic in design, they’re still a highly believable threat to our heroes – all tall, green, toothy and quivering with slimy muscles. So I could easily see one of them walking through Mos Eisley spaceport. Though it is slightly odd how, for such a clearly advanced space-faring race, they still fight like savage animals during the later action scenes.

Speaking of which, Cowboys & Aliens sure doesn’t compromise when the going gets rough. Despite having a 12A/PG13 rating, the action here is nothing short of brutal. The opening sequence alone results in three very dead men, including one who gets a wince-inducing facial pounding from Craig. From then on, people are frequently shot or clawed at with violent results, while alien goo splatters all over the place. Overall, there’s a very practical and hands-on feel to the action, with no horrific shakey-cam style editing to worry about.  

And the best part? This has ‘Cult Classic’ stamped all over it. I’m calling it now - in twenty years time, and at least four direct to video sequels later, this will be looked back on as an underappreciated cinematic gem and placed on a pedestal by its small, yet hardcore fan base.

You heard it here first!                

Saturday, 3 September 2011

L.A. Noire

Spoilers ahead.

I should probably make it clear that L.A. Noire wasn’t exactly my favourite game of all time. Plenty about it rubbed me the wrong way, such as how repetitive the experience felt at times, how tedious/unintentionally hilarious the clue finding sequences were (that’s a wooden spoon, Cole, put it down!) and, perhaps most of all, how the questioning segments were either made frustratingly vague or painfully obvious by those just-a-bit-too-convincing facial animations.

Of course there were moments during these interrogations when I genuinely wasn’t sure whether to hit X or A, and I screwed up on several occasions. But most of the time, it was either:

Believe them if they answer quickly, clearly and keep eye contact with you.

Doubt them if their eyes start swivelling like those sinister late 90s Action Man figures.

Accuse them of lying if, quite frankly, they look like they’re having a stroke.

But that’s not what I want to complain about. As despite how samey the game quickly became, I was constantly impressed by the level of painstaking attention to detail that was on display the entire time. Team Bondi did a fantastic job in recreating that Noire style. In addition, the voice acting was mostly excellent and helped to sell the game’s filmic style. Through thick and thin I lapped up the atmosphere and story, believing it was all leading somewhere great.

If only.

I think the first serious bump in the road comes when, after having already spent 17-18 hours playing as detective Cole Phelps, you are suddenly wrenched from his shoes and forced to spend the final three hours of the story playing as Jack Kelso – a private investigator who we know little about, save for the knowledge that he and Cole were frequently at loggerheads during the war. Thing is, my problem with this isn’t actually about getting peeved at suddenly having to play as the new guy (call it ‘Arbiter Syndrome’ if you like), but that we soon discover how much of a better character than Cole Phelps this Jack dude really is.

Lest we forget, Cole is a heartless robot with one emotion: ANGER. Seriously, this guy’s mood swings are the stuff of nightmares! When he’s not intensely studying discarded cigarette packets or the aforementioned wooden spoons, he’s probably shouting at something. Whether it’s down the phone (“THIS IS DETECTIVE PHELPS!”), or at a hospitalised child ("WHY ARE YOU LYING TO US?!"), his voice is rarely lowered; and even when it is, he still sounds annoyed about something. It often becomes tempting to press Y just for the hell of it.

And he always looks constipated.

Now, hyperbole aside, I know Phelps has been to hell and back. What we learn about his wartime history could well excuse his emotional nature. But he just isn’t likeable enough. Jack Kelso is another story, however. True, he frowns a lot; and he has this annoying habit of calling women “princess” (makes my skin crawl), but unless I’m mistaken, those are actual Noire character traits. He’s the daring PI who goes out of his way to find the truth, and ends up dodging danger at every turn as a result. Why couldn’t this guy have been the main character instead?

Although while Jack’s more dramatic cases do make for a refreshing change of pace from Cole’s far more monotonous objectives, it’s around this point that the story takes a turn for the more convoluted. I don’t know about anyone else, but my favourite part of L.A. Noire was the homicide desk’s conclusion where you were following clues left by the ‘Werewolf Killer’ around Los Angeles (just a shame the climax of that sequence was so bitterly disappointing). Several hours later, with its string of deadly and clearly connected house fires, the arson desk cases appeared to be heading in a similar direction, and prior to playing as Kelso, I was expecting the final cases to lead Cole and Biggs closer to a final confrontation with the serial arsonist, and then ultimately to the main antagonist, Dr. Harlan Fontaine (who we knew was ultimately, if indirectly, responsible for the arsonist’s actions).

Instead, the story became bogged down with the main characters investigating Elysian Field’s insurance scam, which was more than a little boring when compared to what had come before and what could have been. Yet strangely, the game suddenly turns into the 40s set prequel to Commando with you leading an assault on one particular villain’s mansion. It sure made a change from questioning suspects about their involvement in the conspiracy at hand, but it felt jarringly out of place.

But the real issue doesn’t rear its ugly head until right near the end. How, after all the hours spent slowly investigating crime scenes and questioning rubber-faced suspects, and gradually sensing how all the story’s plot threads were weaving together into something memorable... the game draws to a close with the sewer level.


Generally speaking, the fourth stage of most NES games! Often remembered as the worst level of the bunch, too. It’s certainly no exception here with its depressingly boring design and the inevitable use of water as a fatal obstacle (yes, Jack is seemingly yet another in a long line of video game protagonists who can’t swim). Even more bizarre is how you’re suddenly given access to a flamethrower!

... I’m still trying to figure out what the thought process behind this decision was.

Just to add a little more bitter disappointment, all of the antagonists are either disposed of or forgotten about without ANY involvement of your own. The stage was set for one final, intense interrogation with Fontaine as a ‘final boss’ of sorts, where you could have used all the evidence you’d built up against him. Remember, Fontaine had already been set up as a slimy-yet-suave villain who would have no doubt provided Cole with a significant challenge, which could have led to alternate endings based on how well the confrontation went. He was, by far, one of the most well developed game villains I know of, so there was so much potential!                   

Eh... maybe I’m just too optimistic.